Thursday, September 29, 2005

Bull's-Eye Brightness

We all know what the term “bull’s-eye” means in target practice—dead center (literally “dead” center, in the lingo of police officers who are training at the firing range to protect themselves and to stop capital criminals). It has other meanings, though. A new one, to me, occurs in Sir Gilbert Campbell’s “The Mystery of Essex Stairs,” an 1891 story we're currently typesetting and proofreading for inclusion in the Vintage Short Mystery Classics e-book series ( A bull’s-eye in Victorian days sometimes referred to a type of lantern which had a convex lens, via which a bobby on a murky night beat in London could illuminate an object of suspicion in some dark corner or alleyway. In the same sense, a modern-day flashlight might be called a bulls-eye.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Period Short Stories for September

Six short stories have been added to the "Vintage Short Mystery Classics" series this month. To wit: "The Shed Chamber," Laura E. Richards' adventure of a juvenile farm sleuth; "The Ghost Ship," a fantastical spoof by Richard Middleton; "The Executioner," a heart-rending Napoleonic tale of the ultimate familial dilemma by Honoré de Balzac; "The Fenchurch Street Mystery," Baroness Orczy's introduction of the Old Man in the Corner to the realm of armchair sleuths; "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Edgar Allan Poe's ground-breaking detective story; and "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley," the first short story of intrigue Arthur Conan Doyle ever had published (predating Sherlock Holmes).

These tales can be downloaded free in PDF format from

Friday, September 23, 2005

UFOs: The Early Years

The UFO (unidentified flying object) phenomenon generally is dated to 1947, when businessman Kenneth Arnold, flying a small plane over Washington State, observed nine saucer-shaped objects in the sky (seemingly) nearby. But Arnold wasn’t the first credible witness. A spate of strange “airship” sightings were reported by numerous Americans in 1896-97. Assuming these were extraterrestrial visitors, they apparently went away for half a century—then came back in prolific force and variety, if the many thousands of latter-day accounts are to be believed.

Serious UFOlogists actually point to Bible times for historic evidence. Specifically, they ponder the mysterious “wheels” in the sky described by the prophet Ezekiel. Some likewise have raised questions about the exact nature of the “chariot of fire” and the “whirlwind” that carried the prophet Elijah away into the sky. (See II Kings 2:11.)

We of the Christian faith will be little surprised—transfixed, I’m sure, but not surprised—to see heavenly wonders when they appear as promised. As for what may already have come down, I for one allow that unexplained, unearthly flying objects are possible. I seriously doubt they’re transporting Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart and other missing celebrities hither and yon, and I’m not too worried about their crews deviously propagating alien lineages throughout the human population. But I do believe in “miracles.”

Friday, September 16, 2005

Father Brown: A Contrary Perspective

So often when I turn to a biography of Chesterton or an encyclopedic synopsis of his strange little sleuth Father Brown among the annals of detective fiction, I encounter adjectives like “inconspicuous,” “innocent,” “simple,” “nondescript,” “ordinary.” That ambience, so widely perceived concerning the ecclesiastical crime solver, has mystified me from the very first Father Brown story I ever read (“The Eye of Apollo,” I believe). In none of the stories have I ever envisioned an ordinary, simplistic Father Brown. From the instant he is introduced in any story, he obviously (I think) is an observer already deep, deep down in the evolving plot—ahead of the writer, in fact. He may look like a typical Catholic priest of his day; he may not say much that makes sense on the surface; his expressions of logic may come across as absent-minded, meaningless or, at best, irrelevant to the story. But to classify him as bland and removed from reality is to miss his very spirt, I uphold.

Perhaps it’s because we all know he’s a genius. A genius in the guise of a simpleton cannot exist for very long once his genius is recognized. I’ve tried to approach successive Father Brown stories afresh, as a reader unfamiliar with his brilliance. It just doesn’t work. The instant the cherub-faced man wearing the collar is mentioned—perhaps noticed in passing as a coffee-sipping diner at a café—we understand that the investigation is underway and is in the best of hands.

Five collections of Father Brown short stories were written from 1911 to 1935. They never fail to intrigue me—and Father Brown himself is never one iota less than intriguing.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Shoeless Joe Jackson: The Mystery Remains

A mystery that long has intrigued me is the nature of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson’s involvement in the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” scandal. Did he or didn’t he accept money to help throw the World Series?

Jackson, one of the all-time great hitters and fielders, was banned from professional baseball after he and seven White Sox teammates were accused of accepting bribes from organized crime, or of knowing of the World Series scam and refusing to report it to authorities. They eventually were acquitted at trial, but Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, newly appointed baseball commissioner, ousted them from the game. Landis, on a mission to clean up sports corruption, believed the players clearly were guilty and an example must be made for other athletes tempted to cheat.

The 1988 movie Eight Men Out, based on Eliot Asinof’s book, portrayed the Chicago players as victims of crass, tightwad management under team owner Charles Comiskey. There seems little doubt key personnel, ripe for bribery, indeed were approached by racketeers, and at least several accepted money to lose games. (The Cincinnati Reds won the Series, five games to three.)

The question of Jackson’s participation always has been a riddle. A star player, he would have been an obvious target of the plotters. His performance during the Series, however, belied any suspicion that he contributed to his team’s losses. Jackson batted .375 and fielded heroically. By and large, he played better than the winning Reds outfielders.

Some, including the movie makers, conclude that Jackson—illiterate and deceived by criminal organizers—vacillated, reluctantly agreed to take part in the fraud, actually received a bribery payment . . . but then reneged, unable to bring himself to play sloppily. If it’s true, he turned in a stellar Series performance and received compensation somewhat in line with his value, unlike other players under Comiskey’s thumb. In the process, however, he lost his career.

Others are convinced Jackson never joined the plot to begin with. Relatives and longtime admirers repeatedly sought to clear his name and have it entered into the Baseball Hall of Fame—recognition he unquestionably earned with his caliber of play during his decade in the majors. All attempts failed. Jackson died in 1951 in the South Carolina upstate, where he had grown up poor playing mill league baseball.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Enrico Caruso & the Black Hand

Until a year before his death in 1921 at age 48, Enrico Caruso was a star of the stage. No other dramatic tenor was his equal during his lifetime, and he became a pioneering recording artist, making phonographs for the Victor company as early as 1903.

While most Americans know him by his incredible performing voice, not so many know of his brush with the Sicilian-American extortion organization called the Black Hand. Originating in the Mediterranean in the 18th Century, the Black Hand was active in New York, New Orleans, San Francisco and other major American cities in the early 1900s. Its modus operanda was to send to an Italian immigrant a threatening letter adorned with images of crossbones, daggers, nooses, pistols or other unnerving symbols (including black hands), demanding money under penalty of injury or death. By some estimates, more than half the Italians who immigrated to New York during the late 1800s and early 1900s were threatened.

Caruso, a native of Naples, was an obvious, affluent target. He fearfully paid the society $2,000 upon demand. Alarmingly, he received a subsequent letter requiring $15,000. Caruso realized he had two choices: Devote his career to supporting the Black Hand, or go to the police. He took the latter course. Two Italian-Americans were arrested after retrieving the extortion money which Caruso delivered under the watch of officers.

The famous singer survived the Black Hand. Many others were shot, knifed or strangled. Sometimes the brutal executioners burned their bodies. The most notable victim was Giuseppe Petrosino, a New York City detective whose specific quest was to bring to justice the criminals of his native country who had become the scourge of the city’s “Little Italy” district. In March 1909, Petrosino arrived in Palermo, Sicily, to investigate Black Hand connections in the homeland. He was shot to death outside the Palazzo Steri, the city’s judicial building.